By Jiten Yumnam
Often referred to as the mirror of Manipur, the Loktak Lake continues to be embroiled in endless controversies. One will not disagree that the Loktak Lake, a primary source of livelihood, cultures and traditions of different indigenous peoples of Manipur, is currently afflicted with deep mayhem. On 12 October 2012, the Tehelka, a New Delhi based magazine, exposed how the Government of Manipur indulged itself in a ridiculous mismanagement of Loktak Lake colluding with several corporate bodies in a “phumdi” clean up contract worth Rs. 224 Crores.
Tehelka questions how a company, K-Pro Infra Works Limited with only 10 lakhs as paid up capital and existing only on paper with none living in the residential flat claimed to be its office in New Delhi received the multi-crore work order for “Management of Phumdis in the Loktak Lake”. K-Pro also turned out to be a brand new corporate body formed only on 22 June 2009 much after the tender notice of Loktak Development Authority (LDA) on 4 June 2009. One wonders how an absolutely unknown company, who have no work experience, manage to get a multi-Crore project within days of its formation. Despite K-pro the lone bidder, it received the work contracts in violation of the Central Public Works Department norms, which requires at least three bidders for such tenders. Tehelka further questions the hidden agenda of K-pro teaming up with Progressive Constructions Limited (PCL), based in Hyderabad, which received the initial short term work order for phumdi clearance during 2007-2008, without any tender notice etc? In more technical questions related to procedural lapses and signs of high favoritism, question emanates as to why K-pro was given an interest free mobilization advance in violation of CPWD norms. Though the LDA attempts to clarify some of the issues raised by Tehelka through its media circular on 18th October 2012, there are no appropriate answers as LDA tries to justify the questionable decisions of the Government of Manipur due to Planning Department’s insistence for speedy cleanup process and slow pace of work by PCL etc. The questions still remain open and one hopes, there’s some logical conclusions in days to come.
The nature, intent and lack of transparency of awarding contracts, issues of favoritism, violations of all norms of awarding contracts etc, the legitimacy and experience of the K-Pro company to clean Loktak Lake, the accountability issues, the community participation in Loktak Lake management etc are some key problematic areas emerged out of the ongoing ruckus. The much hyped up efforts to clean up the Phumdis from Loktak Lake by the Loktak Development Authority with K-Pro company, an unknown company, before the award of the contract in 2009 under the controversial Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006 (LPA 2006) has already led to the arsoning of floating phum huts and eviction of fisherfolk communities in and around the Loktak Lake in November 2011. The communities depending on Loktak Lake not only received blames as polluters of Loktak Lake but are also subjected to forced eviction and State brutalities. Never has the Government of Manipur so efficient and swift in implementing any activities less for the merciless arsoning and evicting nearly one thousand traditional phum floating huts used for fishing in November 2011. In sharp contrast, the French Government supported Imphal Sewerage Project, which should actually be minimizing the pollution of Loktak Lake, is dragging almost a decade’s time causing enormous inconveniences to the denizens of Imphal. In the case of Loktak evictions, the Government through LDA used all its machineries, the law enforcers, the paramilitary forces in the eviction. One wonders why the contradictions, inconsistencies and also the unnatural expression of full state fury to guardians of the Loktak Lake and for whose interests and gains.
Communities depending on the Loktak Lake have long experienced sleepless nights and arduous moments ever since the commissioning of the Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric project in 1984. The fate of both Loktak Lake and the communities are increasingly uncertain. The project, not only submerged more than 83,000 hectares of prime agricultural land, displaced several thousands of people, but also devastated Loktak Lake ecosystem leading to extinction of several endemic plant and animal species. Communities affected by the project are yet to be resettled and rehabilitated. The communities also underwent several moments of displacements and human rights violations due to military operations in Loktak Lake, such as Loktak Operation in 1999, Operation Summer Storm in 2008 etc.
One wonders who is actually monitoring the processes and impact of the cleaning up of Phumdis by K-pro. And if so, whether it’s done in a participatory and transparent process and as such, the Loktak Lake cleaning up processes by K-Pro, PCL and LDA involves a big accountability issues. K-pro is supposedly earning Rs. 44 Lakhs every day even if it does not work. Communities depending in Loktak Lake are already witness to the dubious means used by K-Pro companies for Loktak Lake clean up. Explorations in interior areas of Loktak Lake inaccessible to JCBs and machineries of K-Pro would reveal that bamboos are extensively used to hold phumdis, which are fast proliferating too. Will K-Pro and LDA hold this phumdis with bamboos till final release of funds from Planning Commission in March 2013?
The blocking of the Manipur River which drains the waters from Loktak Lake down to Chindwin and Irrawady Rivers in Myanmar by the Ithai Barrage of Loktak Project and the rapid urbanization in Imphal and unchecked sewage and sewerage discharge from Satellite towns around Loktak Lake are key reasons of phumdi proliferations in the Lake. Earlier communities regulate phumdis by cutting and discharging excessive Phumdis through Manipur River and now it’s impossible as Ithai Barrage blocks the Manipur River perennially. Has the Government ever taken seriously what natural Loktak Lake cleaning processes has been disturbed and what new factors led to proliferation of Phumdis in the lake. The irony is phumdis will continue to fast proliferate so long as the natural processes of cleaning itself continue to be disturbed. This natural process needs be revived, no temporary solutions will work.
One needs to seriously introspect why the need for phumdi clearance and whether phumdis can actually be cleaned up from Loktak Lake. And is it really possible for Loktak Lake to be free of Phumdis? Communities in Loktak Lake has long maintained Phumdis are key to maintain the health of Loktak Lake, contributing in the biodiversity of Loktak Lake, and that there has to be a balanced approach in the management. Has there been any participatory process and consultations with the communities in Manipur to manage the phumdis in Loktak Lake? Can phumdis be cleared only with JCB’s, water masters and heavy equipments from the vast expanse of the Lake? Has the Government ever and actually thought of alternatives? Has the LDA or the government ever studied the existing various traditional community practices of cleaning up the Lake? Ultimately, how sincere is the government and the corporate bodies to clean up Loktak Lake. One wonders what’s the next multi Crore cleanup plan of Loktak Lake after March 2013, where the current controversial cleanup project is envisaged to end?
The efforts to clean up the Loktak Lake are also fraught with misinformation and failure to address the root cause of the deteriorating condition of Loktak Lake. For instance, the challenges and issues arising out of the much condemned Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project has never been acknowledged. The findings of academic or scientific communities hinting the multifaceted problems emanating from Ithai Barrage of Loktak project never been responded. There is no effort to understand the intrinsic interrelationship of the communities with the Lake, which transcends beyond mere physical relationships. The cleaning up process of K-pro is also problematic as communities living in and around the lake who’s been engaging themselves in cleaning and maintaining the Loktak Lake through their traditional knowledge and practices are excluded and their role and responsibilities undermined. Rather, communities are blamed for the deteriorating condition of Loktak Lake. There is heavy politics of blame games and deep within such politics, there are people who indulged in broad day light robbery. There is strong correlation between the phumdi cleaning drive and the eviction drive of communities. The fisherfolk communities in and around Loktak Lake are one of the most vulnerable and most marginalized communities of Manipur. However, they are forced to suffer for the benefit of just few.
One key concern with Loktak lake management is increasing corporatization of the process. The Loktak Development Authority is increasingly serving the corporate interest of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), the project proponent of Loktak Project. The terms and agreement between government of Manipur and NHPC continues to be shrouded in mystery. The Lake is increasingly converted into commodities for corporate bodies to exploit and gain maximum profits at the cost of the communities depending on it for survival. The Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006 clearly outlined the need for maintaining both quantity and quality of Loktak Lake for NHPC to reap profits from Loktak Project. It’s becoming clear that corporate bodies, such as NHPC, the K-Pro, PCL companies has assumed full ownership of Loktak Lake while forcefully evicting the communities out from Loktak Lake, in a clear disrespect and dishonoring the intrinsic relationship of communities with their land, wetlands and nature, all unaccountability for the devastations and violations to communities rights. Unfortunately, corporate bodies like the NHPC, PCL etc enjoys full political, bureaucratic and military patronage as communities are victimized and pauperized.
Loktak Lake is already a designated as Ramsar Protected Site under the Ramsar Convention and one of the key obligations of the Government is to ensure that communities depending on Loktak Wetlands are fully involved in all management process of the Lake as also endorsed by the resolution VII.8 and VIII.19 of Ramsar Convention`s Conference of contracting parties held at Costa Rica in May 1999 and at Spain in November 2002. Notwithstanding these resolutions, fisherfolk communities of Loktak Lake are evicted and their intrinsic survival dependence on the Lake curtailed. The efforts of the Loktak Development Authority are more to ensure government control of Wetlands and not for its conservation. True conservation would begin with the communities living with the wetland for generations.
With diverse positions emerged on the controversial cleanup process, it’s absolutely important to establish all facts and circumstances of the decisions, all procedural violations and impacts on communities. It is high time for the Government to commission an inquiry by an impartial and credible body to investigate the scandalous phumdi clearance process in Loktak Lake, including processes of awarding contract to K-Pro Infra Works Private Ltd in 2009 and the role of Progressive Construction Limited and the Government of Manipur in such scandals. The nature of awarding contracts, the trend of work implementation, the overall impacts of the works implemented till date, the correlation of Loktak Lake clean up and eviction in Loktak Lake must be fully investigated. The investigation should also cover the correlation of phumdi clearance by K-Pro and arsoning of floating huts, forced eviction and displacement of several thousands of fishing communities from Loktak Lake.
Special investigation is also needed to ascertain as to how the physical health and integrity of Loktak Lake is deteriorating after the commissioning of the Loktak Hydroelectric Project and after enactment of the Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006 (LPA) and suggest appropriate action, including to decommission the Ithai Barrage and implement the recommendations of World Commission on Dams, 2000. The LPA Act, 2006 is more focused on control and administration of wetlands by the government, which is very much evident by the trend of violent arsoning of floating huts in Loktak Lake in end 2011. And as such, there should be consideration for repeal of the Act and instead formulate the Manipur Fisherfolks Rights and Welfare Act. The government should take appropriate steps to formulate a comprehensive Wetlands Management Policies in Manipur with community participation as per guidelines of Ramsar Convention for Community participation and also in accordance with UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which outlined indigenous peoples rights to manage and control their land, territories and resources and also to participate in all decision making process affecting their land and resources. It is also high time to stop all forms of corporatization and privatization of Loktak Lake. It’s too risky for a wetlands of international importance like Loktak Lake to be left to the clutch of profit mongering selfish few groups of people and corporations in complete inconsideration and insensitivity of the delicate symbiotic relationship of peoples and wetlands.